The Artist Project: Hanuman - Nalini Malani

The Artist Project: Hanuman - Nalini Malani


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Nalini Malani on "Hanuman Bearing the Mountaintop with Medicinal Herbs"

"I'm attracted to the myths because, for me, it's a language to link with people."

The Artist Project is a 2015 online series in which we give artists an opportunity to respond to our encyclopedic collection.


A W A R E

16.12.2017 | Marie Perennès

Nalini Malani, Remembering Mad Meg, 2007-2011, théâtre d’ombres/vidéo à trois canaux, seize projections lumineuses, quatre projections vidéo, huit cylindres rotatifs en plastique Lexan peints au revers, son, dimensions variables, vue de l’exposition Paris-Delhi-Bombay, Centre Pompidou, 2011, Paris, © Payal Kapadia

The video experimentation and performances of Nalini Malani, a pioneering and political artist of the Indian scene, are now well known: monumental and immersive installations combining paintings, screenings, sound and video installations.

The retrospective currently presented at the musée national d’Art moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris) retraces half a century of creation, from photograms and 16mm films to her “shadow plays/videos”, paintings, and drawings. While the artist tirelessly varies her media and techniques, the history of India and the violence of the world (particularly towards women) have consistently remained the cornerstones of her thinking and her work.

Nalini Malani, Utopia, 1969-1976, 16mm black and white film and 8mm color-by-image animation film, transferred to digital media, double video projection, 3’49’’, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, © Photo : Nalini Malani

Born in 1946 in Karachi, a city then under British rule, Nalini Malani was forced to flee with her whole family to Calcutta and then Bombay at the time of the division of India in 1947. 1 A victim of great precarity, plunged into unknown languages and cultures, the artist’s practice was long informed by this traumatic experience and upheaval. From the 1970s onwards, she also examined the subject of war and Indian nationalism, drawing on popular beliefs and the role of women in a context of rural exodus and urban expansion, adopting a deliberately humanist and internationalist perspective.

Nalini Malani, Hamletmachine, 2000, four screens video-theater, sound, 20’’, three video projectors and screens, 330 x 440 cm each, projected video on white salt platform, 360 x 270 cm, black reflective floor, © Arario Gallery

Resolutely Feminist and Political Activism

Although not entirely chronological or thematic, the retrospective at the musée national d’Art moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou opens with the first works created by Nalini Malani between 1969 and 1976, notably during her participation in the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) in Bombay, followed by those produced during her time in Paris.
A series of films in black and white as well as photograms or photomontages raise questions pertaining to the developing world, to anti-imperialist struggles, or the segregations and prohibitions endured by women. The exhibition sheds light on her outspoken avant-gardism Utopia (1969-1976), for instance, is presented in the form of a dual projection: a film showing the enthusiasm and hope given to the middle classes by Nehru’s modernism in the 1960s is juxtaposed with a video, created after the artist moved to an ordinary building in the suburbs of Bombay, which in her view attests to the disillusionment that followed this dream and to the urban dystopia of the 1970s.

Nalini Malani, All We Imagine as Light. The City from Where No News Can Come, 2016, painted tondo on the reverse, Ø 112 cm, © Anil Rane

The Search for Pluralistic Forms

The 1990s marked the start of new experimentation for Nalini Malani and a desire to best express the subjects she holds dear and reach a wider audience. At that time, the artist was collaborating on theatre projects in which paintings, videos, audio snippets, and performances were combined. She created huge installations entitled Shadow plays / videos in which images are projected through transparent, rotating cylinders, painted on the outside, while various lights and sound effects also contribute to fully integrating the spectator within the spectacle. In the middle of the exhibition, the musée national d’Art moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou exhibits Remembering Mad Meg (2007-2017), an installation inspired by the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Mad Meg (circa 1562), in which an army of women decides to pillage hell. Nalini Malani denounces the religious and political acts of violence that affect the Indian population and of which women are the primary targets, suffering cruel attacks and rape. In the early 2000s, the artist also developed the concept of the “video play” and created Hamletmachine, inspired by the play by dramatist Heiner Müller. In her work, the character of Hamlet, played by the Butoh dancer Harada Nobuo, becomes the metaphor for the Indian government, uncertain as to its socio-political and economic orientation.

The exhibition also affords the artist the opportunity to return to drawing and painting, which remain fundamental to her work. Nalini Malani thus reveals her most recent paintings, All We Imagine as Light (2000) 2 , in which she deploys a multi-layered story featuring various characters with painful expressions evoking the violent separation of Kashmir, by way of the eleven painted panels of a polyptych.

Nalini Malani, Nalini Malani working on an in situ drawing, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, 2010, © Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne

As a complement to this overview of her work and concurrent with the exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou, the Lelong gallery in Paris presented (12 October-25 November 2017), a series of portraits entitled People Come and Go in which Nalini Malani reminisces about people she met in her neighbourhood in Bombay between 1978 and 2002. Fleeting visions and figures in fading lines, as though emerging from a dream, are thus formed in her mind and transferred to paper. A second edition of the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou will be presented at the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, from 27 March to 22 July 2018.

Nalini Malani. La rébellion des morts, rétrospective 1969-2018 [Nalini Malini: The Rebellion of the Dead, A Retrospective 1969-2018], from 18 October 2017 to 8 January 2018 at the musée national d’Art moderne – Centre Georges-Pompidou (Paris, France).


‘In Search of Vanished Blood’: Nalini Malani on Her Career, the Indian Art World and Bringing Her Documenta 13 Piece to New York

When, during her first solo show of paintings in 1966, an older, male artist informed her that painting was a man’s world, her resolve bristled. She moved to Paris in 1970, where she experimented with 16 mm film, and at age 27 after three years in France returned to India to begin filming in a Muslim slum outside Bombay. But after four months of shooting, she arrived one morning to find the entire area razed devastated, she abandoned the project. Over the next two decades, she raised two daughters and continued painting large canvases of family life.

She underwent an artistic sea change in 1992, after sectarian violence hit India with the Hindu-led dismantling of the 16th-century Babri Mosque. Her memories of Partition reactivated, she saw how art might be used as a peaceful form of protest. Film seemed the easiest way to reach a broad audience. Especially troubling to Ms. Malani was the way women bore the brunt of male-led religious violence, which came to a head in 2002 when riots in a Muslim neighborhood of Gujarat led to the mass rape, sexual mutilation and burning alive of women in the area.

Ms. Malani grappled with these terrors in Unity in Diversity (2003), and now, 10 years later, continues to deal with these issues with In Search of Vanished Blood. German literature scholar Andreas Huyssen, who’s also a friend of Ms. Malani’s and wrote the show’s catalogue essay, told The Observer that one strength of her work is that it is “focused not just on feminism in a Western sense, but on the history of women in relation to the Indian partition, Indian nationalism, Hindu politics today, and violence toward minorities.”

Variations of Partition have happened all over the world, from the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Sudan to the current conflicts in the Middle East, and so Ms. Malani has trawled international waters for archetypes of defiant women: Bruegel’s Mad Meg, the Hindu goddesses Radha and Sita, and Western icons like Medea and Lewis Carroll’s Alice. “One of the greatest imports of Nalini’s work is not only the recognition of and the insistence on the lives of women as particular individuals, but also as epic and mythic,” Whitney Chadwick, a feminist art historian who first met Ms. Malani in the 1980s when she was working on her book Art, Women and Society, said. “All of these deaths, which we tend to think of somewhat abstractly, are actually registered as the bodies and souls and minds of women.”

One finds in Ms. Malani’s work not only images of past travesties, but possible, feared future ones. Ultimately, Cassandra’s prophetic curse presents a conundrum in the artist’s work, as it does with so much art that takes up social concerns. Addressing an often-willfully ignorant world, it asks how artists can move beyond being mere Cassandras and actually effect meaningful social change. Her own answer? “Cassandra had the gift of prophecy but nobody believed her, because she had also the curse of Apollo…If we become aware of both of these factors that operate in us, there would be a little more action to stop things from continuing the way they are,” she said. In the meantime, her installations create a space for thought in which we can identify our own willful ignorance and begin to combat it seriously through conscious dialogue. In Ms. Malani’s mindful world, the end of Partition begins with a conversation.


Through the Looking Glass

While Malani shines a spotlight on patriarchy through art, her own achievements inspire and enable others. For example, she was the first woman to receive the prestigious Fukuoka Asian Art Prize (2013) and the first Indian to have a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (and Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino 2018). Importantly, she organised the first ever all-female art exhibition in India.

Between 1987 and 1989 “Through the Looking Glass” visited Bhopal, New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Malani visited New York in 1979. There, the newly-opened A.I.R gallery inspired her. When she returned to India she spent years negotiating with public and private institutions in order to organise a similar space for Indian women.

The exhibition took place in public spaces in order to escape the elite atmosphere of art galleries. India has a specific context of a long and complicated history of caste and gender discrimination, nonetheless, the impact of Malani’s activism has created ripples the world-over.


Nalini Malani

In 1998 the Indian government carried out a series of underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, a northern province in the desert state of Rajasthan. The test site was only 150km from the border with Pakistan, and by this time India had already engaged in three separate wars with its neighbour. In the same year, artist Nalini Malani made a work entitled Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998), based on a short story by Sa’adat Hassan Manto, an Urdu author and playwright from the new Pakistan. In the short story, Hindu and Sikh patients from a psychiatric asylum in Pakistan are filled into coaches to make the journey over to India, and bizarre circumstances ensue. A patient climbs a tree and decides to remain there instead. Others occupy narrow strips of land yet unassigned by cartographers. Politics is posturing, and Partition is madness. In Malani’s four-channel video installation, first presented at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai in 1999, visitors entered a room with a Mylar-covered floor and 12 tin trunks stuffed with quilts and small, flickering monitors displaying found footage. A woman’s voice hangs over the work as she reads out an extract from the short story, and the figures of Remembering Toba Tek Singh spill and melt into each other, drifting along the installation’s several materials.

“History does not occur in episodes,” Malani declares. When asked about her relationship to Partition, and the narrative of trauma and displacement that is often applied to her work, she continues, “I am more interested in how Partition activates itself in the present moment.” When referring to the events of 15 August 1947, Malani says “Partition/Independence”, as though the two words are interchangeable. She is often described as a Pakistani artist, but was born in Karachi in 1946 before the country was even formed. In 1947 her family was forced to leave for Calcutta (now Kolkata). “I have never had the desire to go back to the cities and villages my parents were from,” she says. “But my mother, at ninety-six, still talks about it. It is not my trauma, but I have grown up with the smell of those cities. Their aura.”

“It is not my trauma, but I have grown up with the smell of those cities. Their aura.”

In the polyptych Cassandra (2009), Malani paints her figures onto acrylic sheets with ink, enamel and acrylic paint. Malani’s method of approaching surfaces is tactile: she will stain figures out over transparent sheets or smudge them into shape. For Roobina Karode, director of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (which hosted Malani’s 2014 retrospective You Can’t Keep Acid in a Paper Bag), this is a language that suits “unpaintable and sometimes unpalatable themes, such as innards flying across a plane to depict the violence inflicted upon women’s bodies”. In Search of Vanished Blood (2012), a six-channel video/shadow play with five rotating reverse-painted Mylar cylinders, broken figures float along the work’s surrounding walls in a loop. Malani plays with scale, often combining very large pieces with smaller fragments, and her works may be read as surfaces of assembly, shifting between mediums and materials. They are innately theatrical and almost always rely on movement. It is a clever strategy “People in India understand the moving image so well”, she says.

As a student, Malani received a very traditional training in painting at the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai. An early introduction to film, however, radically changed her practice and led to her becoming one of the first female South Asian artists to work extensively with the medium. Between 1969 and 1971 Malani was a member of the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) convened by Akbar Padamsee, one of India’s better-known painters. Padamsee used state funds he had received in the form of a Nehru Fellowship, matched by his own money, to set up the initiative, a rare piece of artistic infrastructure designed to enable experiments with technology. Set in his Bombay apartment, Padamsee brought together painters, printmakers, animators, sculptors, cinematographers and even a psychoanalyst, and the workshop aimed for a multidisciplinary exchange. Malani and painter Nasreen Mohamedi, who had a practice of geometric abstraction, were the only two women to be included in the workshop, where Malani was its youngest participant.

Malani made a series of 8mm and 16mm films, working with great speed as she produced three films in the short span of six months. These three films have only recently been discovered. In Still Life (1969) the camera trails the possessions flung over Malani’s bed, giving the viewer an intimate look at her private space. In Onanism (1969) Malani uses a ladder to simulate a crane shot to film a woman suffering a series of violent contortions from above. The third film, one half of what then became Utopia (1969/76), was a work of pure abstraction. Malani built an urban landscape from thick black card and photographed it from erratic angles. She then converted these photographs into large negatives, filtering in colours onto their grey and black tones. She then reshot these photographs on 8mm. The landscape rendered by this process is at once one of the modernist architecture it tries to emulate as it is its deconstruction: a series of simple photographic gestures. “For me, abstraction has always been a research material, or a process, that allows me to see further than just the surface,” says Malani, and in her work, abstraction becomes a useful device with which to negotiate the identity-making practices of a new country.

“For me, abstraction has always been a research material, or a process, that allows me to see further than just the surface”

As an artist who began making work during the 1960s, during the rollout of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for a new India, Malani grappled with Modernism – and a ‘Nehruvian Modernism’ at that. Modernism was the language chosen by Nehru for the new India, and Nehruvian Modernism was a narrative of progress: decidedly secular and pluralistic. It was also obsessed with the fashioning of the ideal modern subject. Malani was one of very few artists of the time to be cognisant of how South Asia was simultaneously enacting multiple Modernisms, and that several regions were approaching the modern subject differently: from the Bombay School to the Bengal, all the way down to Cochin. “We were thinking about the Indian figure, and how we could use our different local stories to connect with our audience, and with each other,” says Malani about her collaborations, as she worked closely with Nilima Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar from the Baroda School.

In the summer of 1979 Malani walked down Wooster Street in New York to visit the recently opened A.I.R. Gallery. Ana Mendieta was there – as were Nancy Spero and May Stevens, to whom Malani was introduced. Taken by the gallery’s fierce determination to create a space for the work of female artists, in a city whose galleries otherwise almost never showed female work, let alone women of colour, Malani returned to India with the aim of extending the formula. Such a space did not exist in India, and Malani speaks often about the patronising treatment she received from her male peers for most of her career. After years of negotiation with various public and private institutions, a show entitled Through the Looking Glass, featuring the work of Madhvi Parekh, Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh and Malani herself, travelled India between 1986 and 1989.

Malani has always been vocal about her feminism, which is at first interested in making women visible outside narratives of ‘femininity’. Her work often speculates the gestures and voices of women who have been silenced, particularly by ‘great’ works of literature, such as Sita from the Ramayana, whom she places alongside the Greeks Cassandra and Medea. In an ongoing series entitled Stories Retold (2002–) several paintings look to mutate singular female myths, most famously Sita/Medea (2006), in which both women, painted on Mylar with watercolour, acrylic paint and enamel, are fused together in many iterations along the same plane. “I find that we have so many parallels to Greek mythology, but still in the West I am always asked – why are you interested in Greek mythology? But I say we have a whole Indo-Hellenic school of sculpture all along Afghanistan, and the Bamiyan Buddhas are in the Hellenic style.” In Malani’s treatment of the world, nothing happens in isolation, and neither should it be considered as such. “When we’re talking about indigenous Modernism,” says Malani, “I think the failure is of a different nature – we were, and still are, too reliant on the West to determine our language.”

Malani’s 2014 exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art took the form of a nearly yearlong retrospective and marked the first time her work was shown on such a scale in South Asia. It was a significant moment in her career – her place in the history of Indian modernity was cemented, as was as her continuing contribution to the contemporary discourse in South Asia. The Centre Pompidou in Paris, where a retrospective of Malani’s work has just opened, has a room especially dedicated to the early films and photographs of 1969–76. Her films from 1969, Still Life, Onanism and Taboo, which have never been seen before, are the most significant in the show: where Malani deftly negotiates the politics of a nation at the brink of a new identity. She is also looking forward, and preempts how the Nehruvian idealism in which she herself was implicated was to fracture in the years to come. Malani’s practice epitomises the moment as succinctly as it delivers it – the new India was not simply one of idealisms, but also broken, ephemeral and composed of multiple narratives.

Nalini Malani: The Rebellion of the Dead, Retrospective 1969–2018 Part I is on view at Centre Pompidou, Paris, through 8 January


Nalini Malani: Transgressions

Nalini Malani is considered one of the foremost artists from India today. She was born in 1946 in Karachi before the 1947 Partition of India and was trained as a painter at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai (1964–1969). Malani became known as a pioneer in India in the 1980s for her attention to feminist issues, and later in the early 1990s for her innovative theater and installation projects. Her multimedia projects feature recurring themes around the subjects of gender, memory, race, and transnational politics, especially in reference to India’s postcolonial history after independence and partition. The artist often draws upon stories from Hindu and Greek mythology, nineteenth-century literary nonsense writing by such authors as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and early-twentieth-century experimental theater to create allegories for present day events.


Transgressions II, 2009, a video/shadow play from the Asia Society Museum Collection, explores the nuances of Western postcolonial dominance in India. This three-channel video installation integrates the folk sensibility of traditional shadow plays with new technology to create mesmerizing projections of colors and imagery.


Three videos are projected through four transparent Lexan cylinders, which the artist has painted in a manner that references the Kalighat style practiced in Bengal in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In their time, Kalighat paintings often commented on topical events and Malani makes use of this genre to examine the power dynamics of transnational commerce in our increasingly globalized world. Malani’s technique of painting on transparent surfaces was inspired by the genre of reverse glass painting, brought to the subcontinent in the eighteenth century by the Chinese. As the reverse-painted cylinders rotate, images of a wrathful female deity, boxers, and animals inspired by Edward Said’s Orientalism create an ever-shifting tableau on the gallery walls. The imagery is accompanied by a recording of a poem written by the artist. Also included is a selection of artist books, which highlight how drawing and painting have always been integral to Malani’s practice.


Michelle Yun
Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art


Nalini Malani

Detailed wall texts can provoke suspicion. The curatorial impulse to explain individual art works outside a catalogue begs questions about the supposed opacity of the works. In tandem, there is the suggestion of assumptions being made about the viewer. Nalini Malani’s exhibition of recent work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), her first solo show in Europe, highlighted these concerns because her installations of paintings, video and shadow plays were each accompanied by extended captions discussing the artist’s use of mythological and literary figures and her interest in feminist theory. Given that Malani’s work also addresses Indian history and traditions, one can wonder about IMMA’s idea of their audience: disinterested white men?

Sarcasm aside, Malani’s installations moved in many directions despite being stylistically unified through her fundamental concern with painting and drawing. The curators of this show might have been forgiven for attempting to mediate with explanation the experience of the work of a female Indian artist now being fêted in so-called international contexts. But questions and propositions, not answers or resolutions, ultimately provided the order of this exhibition. The many directions in which Malani’s installations move provided grist to the mill of interpretation, description and issues of context. A profound insight is offered by the recognition of the challenge of an artist who is ostensibly inside and outside a variety of traditions.

Paintings from the artist’s ongoing series ‘Stories Retold’ are a case in point. Here the figures of Alice in Wonderland and Medea and Sita are rendered as allegorical. Formally, the paintings suggest Sigmar Polke, early Paula Rego and Nancy Spero. Theoretically, fragmented narratives and Malani’s concern with revisionism bring us to issues of feminist interventions in history. Moreover, the fact that Malani paints on the reverse side of Mylar suggests a critical disposition to the act of painting. The expressivity of the artist’s brushwork is put at a distance, denying its fetishistic qualities for the copious amount of female bodies on display and, in framing the very fact of expressivity, it treats the consequence of creative endeavour as a signifier rather than as an inevitable fact. Malani’s relevance for feminist critiques of artistic production is notable in this respect.

However, this is my reading, not the one proposed. A more straightforward description of ‘Stories Retold’ and other works, including Remembering Mad Meg (2007), would be as follows: Malani’s sense of composition recalls medieval painting and ancient, imaginative maps, and her sketchily rendered figures, from disparate mythological, literary and other traditions, variously pose, walk, sit and jump across a flat picture plane. Sometimes the background to the figures is monochrome at other times Malani uses a grid structure or dots. Her paintings have a Pop appeal (think characteristic Polke), but this is offset by a sense of the grotesque, since the humans that occupy her universe often appear bruised and battered as they negotiate their way through what seem to be entrails, semen and various types of evil-looking creatures.

The video installation included in the IMMA show was altogether more didactic. Archetypal Indian images (cows, Hindu deities) were interspersed with fragments of the female body and introduced by a quote from the sociologist Veena Das on the relationship between women, violence and modern India. The shadow plays are her paintings projected, and the feeling here was carnivalesque, in terms of movement and a sensational sense of hybridity.

In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, art historian Chaitanya Sambrani proposes that Malani’s strategy of drawing on a variety of traditions and engaging particular constructions of gender identity is the consequence of her personal history. Malani was born in 1946, a year before Partition, and her family emigrated as refugees from Pakistan to India, where they endured cultural dislocation and as Malani evolved as an artist, she reacted against the male-dominated world of Indian, though essentially internationalist, Modernism to seek out indigenous figurative traditions and avow a politics of the personal. Sambrani writes of the artist’s concern to ‘chart new maps of identification and reference a broader spectrum of historical, phenomenological, and psychological conditions’. The use of reverse painting is related to Chinese and Indian traditions that moved across sacred and profane imagery. Furthermore, a key influence is the late-19th-century painter Ravi Varma, who refashioned traditional religious and mythical subject matter for a modern audience.

My head is spinning. Sambrani writes that the artist ultimately transcends all the references evoked and that the fact of multiple interpretations is at issue. This is a reasonable assessment, but it is somewhat disingenuous about the challenge of Malani’s installations at IMMA. Somewhere between the eager wall texts and the avowal of open-ended meanings is the demand for a nuanced understanding of the terms of the works’ production and the relationship of the works to much broader concerns. This demand is central to the experience of the installations themselves, and not done justice to when
written away.


Nalini Malani Tells a Story

Artist Nalini Malani’s exhortations to address violence are particularly poignant after this month’s tragedies. When we speak by phone, shortly before today’s opening of her exhibition at the ICA Boston, she emphasizes the artist’s responsibility to consistently evoke discourse about conflict. In her installation, In Search of Vanished Blood (which debuted at Documenta in 2012 and will be the core of her current show of the same name), mylar cylinders hang in the center of the gallery, rotating and projecting moving shadows onto the walls. The images derive from both Eastern and Western mythology, pointing toward universal themes of violence and the suppression of female voices&mdashabout the later of which Malani is more hopeful.

Throughout the past three decades, Malani has become one of India’s foremost advocates for women in the arts, actively contributing to progressive efforts as well as by making her own work. In 1985, she organized the first exhibition of female Indian artists in the country. Now 70 years old, Malani has gained worldwide acclaim for her large-scale installations, video art, and paintings. Drawing from universal texts, her work often unites elements of vastly different cultures, and in October 2017, the Centre Pompidou will present her retrospective, marking the institution’s first for an Indian artist.

We spoke to Malani about her artistic practice, influences, and future projects while she was installing her show in Boston.

ALINA COHEN: In this space, at this particular time, do you feel that In Search of Vanished Blood has any special resonance?

NALINI MALANI: The work has to do a lot with what we have been going through in India and other parts of the world. Somehow, in the world we live in today, violence has taken over in such a huge way that I feel that it needs to be addressed by artists and talked about all the time. The other thing that affects us enormously is the neglect of feminine thought. We have suffered too long in our civilization. It needs to be addressed in a big way. The work has to do with that, the feminine voice, the feminine thought, the idea [of what] femininity and masculinity are. A balance has to be created for things to really work in a creative way.

COHEN: I read that the work is inspired by Cassandra [of Greek mythology]. Do you identify with that character?

MALANI: Cassandra exists in all of us because the idea of prophecy or intuitional knowledge exists in all of us, only we have to hear it. The Cassandra idea is something that is around us and in us, but I think it’s very important that it has to be heard. There are so many things we know are harmful to the environment and the ecological systems, yet we pursue them even though they have noxious effects. That’s part of the Cassandra idea.

COHEN: When you made this work for Documenta, the world looked a little bit different. Do you think we’ve made progress? Feminist issues and violence&mdashdo you think they’ve gotten worse?

MALANI: I think they’ve gotten worse. It’s not looking good at all. It’s really a sad state of affairs at the moment. We should be in mourning.

COHEN: What about in terms of women in art?

MALANI: I think things are very fortunate. The woman’s voice, at least among the artists, is being brought forward and showcased by museums and galleries. My own gallery, Galerie Lelong, actually shows largely women artists. There are two artists who come to mind very strongly: Nancy Spero and Ana Mendieta. These two artists, for so long, never had a proper exhibition or a museum show. It’s only in the last few years that their work is being recognized for its importance. I hope that starts spreading. I think that’s going to make a difference, that women’s voices in the arts are being heard seriously.

COHEN: I wanted to ask about the mechanics of In Search of Vanished Blood. Where do the images and sound come from?

MALANI: I’ll give you a brief history of how I started to work in this format. It started in 1992-93 when there were huge sectarian riots in my city, in Bombay, and many people lost their lives. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism led to the riots. I wanted to create images from the Hindu epics, which are not at all moralistic, but more open-ended. This, I think, is the prerogative of the artist, to bring forth ancient myths into the contemporary fold, to make them alive again&mdashjust like Cassandra, or Medea, which I’ve been using. Among the Hindu myths I wanted to do the same. I wanted to make immersive spaces where visitors could walk in and get completely encompassed with my images and the video and the shadows. That’s how it started.

I wanted to make Buddhist prayer wheels as a mark of peace. In this particular case, In Search of Vanished Blood, the title of the piece comes from a revolutionary poet from Pakistan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who talks about blood vessels being shed, but who has died? Who has been the killer? And where is this blood? It’s almost like lives are being lost in this useless way and nobody’s claiming that they are the murderers. Who are the murderers? Who are the conquerors at fault, and so on? This is one aspect of it.

Then, Cassandra is an overarching idea that has persisted through many works. It’s what I call female thought and that has helped me work through ideas regarding violence. Not only violence of one person perpetuating it on another, but also violence against our environment and nature, and also particularly as we have it in the South Asian part of the world, where there’s a huge amount of violence perpetuated on women through rape on young girls and rape on tribal communities. All of this is reflected in the shadow plays.

Now about the images, I choose images from mythic stories. They are my own style, but also melding a certain kind of painting called Kalighat style, which was the beginning of modernism in India. I hold on to that flag called modernism one can have criticism about modernism, but modernism brought out respect for the individual. This, I think, is something that we need to come back to today, because the identities of individuation are getting lost within ideas of religion. Religion has played important roles in the past, no doubt, but it’s a very private affair. I think the way it’s being bandied about, as if one god is better than the other, is against the real idea of spirituality, of religion. These are huge topics and they don’t just get confined to one artwork. They go through many of my works.

The sound I composed myself. I hate to use the word “composed.” It’s more like designed&mdashI use my own voice for the text and also for the singing voice, I sing.

COHEN: How do the images match up with the audio? Is there a narrative formed?

MALANI: It’s actually a montage of different texts. In this particular piece, I have a piece from Samuel Beckett, a piece from Faiz. The Faiz poem is not spoken. The poem scrolls over the face it appears as words on a veiled face, which refers to waterboarding. Then I have things from the Indian writer Mahasweta Devi, who has been writing about the tribal communities. Heiner Müller is one playwright who I find very inspiring, so it’s very theatrical. The voice also becomes quite theatrical.

It’s also about communication. I use Morse code and in the images themselves I also use hand sign language. It’s like trying to get out there and communicate with every form possible to say “listen, because we have to hear what’s happening.” Put your ear to the ground. Are the earthworms still there, or are we killing them? Just like technology has given us so much, but we also know that the radio waves are killing the bees. Bees can’t go back to the fields and to their hives because they get lost in this mesh of waves. So there’s the underside to everything that we have invented. We have to pay attention to that because we have to know the balance. We have these wonderful things&mdashlook at the cars we have, look at the sailboats. We have everything, so what is the malaise that leads to this violence?

COHEN: What do you think it is?

MALANI: I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, but I don’t. I can only see the symptoms. I can see it and I can talk about it as an artist. I can try to find a form that might convey it, but to understand that type of violence, which is raw violence, in spite of having everything&mdashwhat is it? It’s worth thinking about and trying to find an anodyne that might somehow reduce that rage. Art itself in its very innateness is humanistic and hence never aggressive. In that sense I feel art, if people are willing to listen, can [reduce rage], but it needs participation.

I always believe that art has a three-bodied relationship: there’s the artist, the artwork, and the viewer. Together, we wake up the art. It’s only together that we say, “This is alive.” Otherwise, art sleeps.

COHEN: Do you see using your own voice within the exhibition as one more way that you can make your voice heard?

MALANI: With my voice, I don’t use it in the pure form. I manipulate the voice digitally, so when you hear it, it may sometimes sound like a child’s voice, sometimes like a masculine voice. It’s not so much that I’m interested for people to know that this is my voice. I tried using other people’s voices but I find I’m not able to get the right pitch. Because I know exactly what I want, it’s best I try it myself it’s not so much that my voice should be heard. I’m not even speaking words that are my own because I think other people have written things which are much more integrated in terms of language and poetry. I prefer someone else’s poetry and appreciate it more. In this theatrical setting, it’s possible to collaborate with other poets and artists. I am very interested in collaboration and I have done quite a bit in the past. I consider this to be kind of collaborative with the works of Faiz, Beckett, and Mahasweta Devi.

COHEN: You collaborate with people from so many different areas. Are there any writers or playwrights or people in film who you’re particularly interested in right now?

MALANI: Heiner Müller is an ongoing interest. What he has done is a real breakthrough in theater. He comes from East Berlin, and you would wonder why I, from India, would be interested in something that comes from East Berlin. But in the 󈨔s, India was aligned to the Eastern Bloc, so we had a lot of literature that came in from East Berlin, including Bertold Brecht and Heiner Müller and Christa Wolf. These were people we were reading at that time. Heiner Müller is somebody who combines Brecht and a classical, almost Shakespearean language. He combines the classical with the graffiti, which is interests me. It’s fusing high language with scratch of the street. I like the melding of the two.

COHEN: Can you tell me what you are working on now?

MALANI: It’s a very ambitious project. I’m not sure if I’m going to fall flat on my face, but I’ll tell you about it. In South Asia, in the period before the British colonized India, the only women who were allowed to pursue the arts were the courtesans. Once the British came in, they called them whores and had brothels and so on. But the word “courtesan” was a very high-class word and they were very high-class ladies. Today we have feminine music from the 13th and 14th centuries and this music has come to us because the British left it well alone. They couldn’t follow what it was about, so they didn’t mess with it, as they did with the visual arts. This music turned out to be a very powerful kind of art and it’s getting usurped by the male voice, by male singers. It’s poetry put to music, so it is in the feminine gender, but it’s men singing in the feminine gender, which is very interesting. So I want to make an artwork about this. It’s going to be complex. I’m working with very fine musicians who are women who have been teaching me about the form. I hope to show this next year when I have my retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.

“IN SEARCH OF VANISHED BLOOD” OPENS TOMORROW AT THE ICA BOSTON.


Mesmerizing Storyteller

As a child Nalini Malan was able to travel abroad. This was a result of her father securing a job working for Air India. As an art student in the early 1970s she spent two years in Paris, on a scholarship by the French government. She has completed residencies in India (1988), America (1989, 2005), Singapore (1999), Japan (1999/2000) and Italy (2003). Throughout her career Malani has exhibited in over seventeen countries. As a result, there is no doubt that she is both an Indian artist and a global artist.

“Her painters eye surpasses and embraces entire epochs and cultures, bridges contemporary events and mythology.”

“You can’t keep acid in a paper bag 1969 – 2014,” Roobina Karode, published by Kirin Nadar Museum of Art, 2015.

The stories that she tells challenge the patriarchy, colonialism and religious fundamentalism (to name a few). Her art is powerful because Malani is a mesmerizing storyteller. Alongside literary references, Malani deploys ideas from popular culture and mythology. These synergies cut across cultures and histories.

“Myths have been brought to us through the wisdom of civilisation, not by one single author. It’s almost as if the flotsam that comes in through the waves picks up things that are like jewels.”

Art Radar, 21 March 2014.

Nalini Malani

Mumbai-based Nalini Malani began painting in the 1960s and has remained at the cutting edge of contemporary art throughout her long career, expanding her practice in the 1990s to include theater collaborations, video installations and shadow plays&mdashinstallations of rotating painted acrylic drums that cast moving shadows onto gallery walls. The centerpiece of a recent exhibition at New York&rsquos Arario Gallery was Listening to the Shades (2008), a suite of 42 paintings weaving together images of war, protests, human anatomy and deities, inspired by the ancient Greek story of the Trojan princess-prophetess Cassandra and German literary critic Christa Wolf&rsquos writings about the Trojan War. ArtAsiaPacific contributor Murtaza Vali caught up with Malani in September after the show opened to discuss her latest body of work.

You are a pioneer of video art in India. What inspired you to explore video, shadow plays and multimedia performance?
The exigencies of certain societal conditions make you search for alternatives. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu extremists in 1992 and the riots that followed, many women artists in India felt a need to embrace new forms. Women documentary filmmakers, who were working with community-based NGOs and using their films as consciousness-raising tools, were very generous with their footage, equipment and their expertise. They recognized that as artists we would have a different take on the material and could address a larger public. And so I started to use video. I had made 16mm films in the 1970s but consciously shifted to video after Babri Masjid.

In retrospect, my approach was anti-Brechtian in one sense: to use the device of seduction, not alienation. I&rsquom forced to, because the general public in India will not enter galleries. Even if they are free, art galleries are daunting for the middle class, who feel that they are elite spaces. But video is seductive and draws people in. The shadow plays are similar. They are mesmerizing you can watch the different images&mdashpainted, projected, shadows&mdashoverlap and combine. However, once I draw people in, I want to tell my own stories.

Much of your work is inspired by stories and myths, both Western and Indian. What attracts you to these grand narratives?
Mythology is a universal language it forms a link to the viewer. Many myths are still widely known. Whether I refer to Vishnu or Shiva or Cassandra or Medea, people know the stories. And then, hopefully, like looking up annotations in a novel, people will seek out the additional references in my works.

In India, the political stakes around interpretations of myth and history are very high. Do you actively challenge the traditional, conventional interpretations?
Yes. Not traditional but conventional histories. People often make up their minds about what Hinduism is and should be without reading the original texts. Hinduism is actually a very freewheeling culture there are fantastical stories in the Bhagavata Purana that many Hindus refuse to acknowledge. For example, the story of Vishnu, a man, taking the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, and seducing Shiva, another man, is a coupling that results in a child named Ayyappan. There are shrines to Ayyappan all over Karnataka. However, the conventional take is that Ayyappan was born from the coupling of Parvati, a woman, and Shiva.

Your protagonists are often female. How do you pick your heroines?
Some of the characters I am drawn to are considered deviants they act in a quirky manner, challenging societal norms. Although they are shunned by society, they are also pioneers. Akka Mahadevi, the subject of the triptych Talking about Akka (2007), was a defiant girl who protested child marriage in the 11th century. Barely 12 years old at the time, she was to be married to a rich merchant. In protest, she proclaimed herself already married to Shiva, walked out of her house naked with only her hair covering her, and roamed the countryside for ten years singing Shiva&rsquos praises, finally dying at the age of 21. Such characters appeal to me. The feminist revolution remains unfinished we are still suffering.

Do you identify as feminist?
I don&rsquot like, or work from, ideologies. Femininity and masculinity are abstract ideas, devoid of ideology what matters is how you activate these tendencies. Both operate in everyone, with the balance constantly shifting. Both women and men suffer from misogyny. Take the cliché that men shouldn&rsquot cry. Freed of this pejorative connotation, men would have an avenue for catharsis.

Would you explain your interest in Cassandra?
Like Hamlet and Medea, Cassandra as seer has become an archetype. There is a Cassandra in all of us we have insights, instincts, we know what is right and what is wrong. But how many of us speak out? Scores of people die in Iraq everyday. Considering our technological progress, such loss of life is insane. We hear things, but we don&rsquot listen. We know things are wrong, like depleting the earth&rsquos resources, but we continue to do them. And that is Cassandra she warned her father about the Trojan horse and they thought she was nuts.

Listening to the Shades resembles a film&rsquos storyboard. Was that your approach?
Not exactly. There is a continuous narrative, but the paintings were conceived as pages of a book. I like time-based work, and one frustrating aspect of painting is that a single image is too small a receptacle to contain such a vast subject. My tendency is to go beyond, into multiples or videos and performances. Cassandra doesn&rsquot end with these pictures. I have already started work on a theater project with actor-director Alaknanda Samarth.

Does she, like your other female protagonists, reflect a specifically feminist position?Following feminist philosophers like Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, I believe that the intuitive part of the mind is coded as female. But this is not a female prerogative it exists in all of us. Why don&rsquot we listen to that? After all, in the aftermath of war or violence it&rsquos women who take care of the wounded and mourn for the dead. Maybe if men performed these roles, there would be fewer deaths.

So Cassandra is a call to acknowledge the power of the feminine, of intuition?
Yes, that&rsquos right.


Watch the video: The Artist Project: Nalini Malani


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